“I think you tripped over me less today,” Aron said.
“And you didn’t drop your sword.”
Keenin regarded the last knife held in his hand and sighed. Five knives just the same were embedded in the straw dummy across the room. He supposed that he should get back to learning swordplay. That’s why Aron and he had stayed late while Harris went out to the forge. Besides, judging by the looming dark clouds outside the window and the damp feeling of the air it would soon rain again.
Keenin finally turned to observe Aron. He looked like he was really showing off with the way he seriously swung his sword around while shirtless. Somehow each stroke had an equal force to the last. Now that was a guy that deserved to be a hero.
“Can’t we practice with the wooden swords?” Keenin asked.
“No way. You gotta build strength. Besides, were using the blunt steel,” Aron said making another lunge at an invisible opponent using .
Keenin looked to the tear in the leather of his boots. He had never owned such quality clothes, but they still wouldn’t suit the battlefield. Keenin walked forward and began pulling the knives from the straw dummy, one from each eye, then one from the throat, the shin, and the ankle. It didn’t make for a pleasant picture, but the knives were effective.
“Where did you get the knives, anyways?” Aron asked.
“The box beside the pikes,” Keenin explained, “I was digging to see what else I could use. They’re of amazing quality. Makes me wonder who owned them before.”
The six knives had a distinct twisted hilt and the smallest symbol of a rose at the base of the blades.
“An assassin,” Aron suggested.
Keenin turned to Aron.
Aron smiled back. The boy was already wiping the length of his sword with a rag. Then he sheathed the sword at his side and moved closer to pick up the leather breastplate that Keenin had worn for training.
“Let’s get something to eat first. I want to know what Harris has been doing with his free time.”
Keenin moved to replace the knives in the box with slots designed to hold exactly six blades.
“And Keenin,” Aron called to him. “Maybe you should keep one of those.”
Keenin respectfully eyed the blade.
“Do you think I can?”
Aron turned to put the leather armor on a stand. Keenin thought about slipping one of the daggers into his boot, but they seemed too good a set to separate.
He left the daggers alone and followed Aron out the door to get food. The afternoon sky lay dark with clouds and the ground was already soaked and turned to mush from an earlier rain shower. Banners snapped in the angry winds. The men around them were securing the ropes on their tents and sealing up any loose supply crates.
“Looks like the troops will get their boots dirty today,” Aron observed meanly.
Keenin visualized the clashing armies, blades lunging forward, swords fending off blows, horses thundering through the gaps and kicking up mud, arrows piercing flesh. Thunder rolled across the sky and Keenin shook off the dream.
“Maybe you shouldn’t say such things,” Keenin suggested.
They were talking about other potentially innocent people.
“Did Rumin talk to you recently?” Aron observed.
Was Keenin not the only one to notice that Rumin favored him.
“He talked to all of us,” Aron said. “It’s his job to convince us that this way is better. And let me tell you, we might not have much reason to run away since he killed our families, since we’re weak, but try to think for yourself. At least don’t get in the way of Harris and I when we feel it’s time to go.”
Keenin decided that Aron wasn’t so weak.
“Sorry,” Keenin apologized. “I knew about your family, yet I asked you to not speak badly of the army.”
He wondered if the other boys had seen the child corpses too. Light rain washed against their faces and the wind whistled.
“When does Iscara get back?” Keenin raised his voice to the question.
He still had to figure out how to satisfy fate.
“I don’t know,” Aron replied above the storm.
“But he has to come back?”
The angry winds blew a wooden bucket across their path.
“We don’t know. I might have killed him by now if I found him!”
Just as Keenin worried that Aron said too much out in the open, the sky flashed with lightning.
“Run!” Aron announced the coming of rain.
As they raced forward a deafening boom of thunder shook the air and the heavy rain pelted down to soak them through to their skin, making their clothes sodden and heavy. And still, the rain poured as they raced to the food tent. Others ducked inside. Keenin could see the larger tent ahead.
That’s when he was jerked backwards by the sleeve, stumbling, and nearly falling with Aron into the mud. Keenin was going to make an argument if Aron didn’t point through the rain at the figures of Nadia and Faber. The two were talking and Keenin understood that Aron wanted to hear what was said. Aron and he approached through the rain, but the Nadia started moving towards the tents and disappeared behind one. When Aron and Keenin got there, there was nobody. The rain eased a slight bit and Aron pulled him in the direction of another tent where two cloaked soldiers were wandering about and tossing handfuls of something from a bag onto the ground. They took cover behind the side of the tent and waited to listen.
“Uh,” the one guard said as he reached into his sack to pull out what looked like salt and scatter the substance around where he stood. “Why couldn’t we do this after the rain?”
“Because there is no after. It’s rain all day,” the companion replied.
“Still. Why are we throwing salt?” the one guard asked.
“You must have joined from out of town. Everyone knows that the leader attracts ghosts for the fighting zombies.”
This conversation reminded him of Dia.
“So, we’re attracting ghosts?” the one guard asked.
“Naw idiot,” the companion said. “We’re keeping them off. Too many specters including our own. We don’t need them causing mischief here. You better get a talisman when you go out to the field.”
“Why doesn’t the leader send the extras back, being a necromancer?”
“Must not work that way. But I’m sure he’ll put our dead back where they belong,” the companion said.
Obviously not, Keenin thought to himself. He would believe the death god on that. If only he killed Iscara or whatever attracted souls that death god could catch up on work and Keenin could stay alive.
“Does this even work if it dissolves?” the one guard questioned.
Keenin would have continued listening, but Aron cut into the conversation.
“Nothing good,” Aron said quietly. “Let’s get that food.”
An unhappy and soaked Keenin lagged behind as Aron wove through the village of tents. He lost sight of his friend ahead and this time when he rounded the next tent he stopped. Aron had been lost, but now Faber blocked his path. The boy still wore the same green cloak as before and Keenin noticed that his eyes were grey-blue behind the steel visor of his helmet, reminiscent of a certain god. The boy didn’t seem responsive. Water rolled impassively off his shelmet.
“Ah, Faber was it,” Keenin said in greeting, half hoping the boy would go away.
So awkward. He was prabably some weak child with no confidence. But then Faber proved him wrong when he spoke back.
“You might as well die,” the boy Faber said.
He let the words hang in the air.
“You don’t even know what their so-called leader looks like,” he finished.
It was startling and easy to think Faber knew about his situation with death. Still, Keenin didn’t want to let a depressed and spiteful boy turn him away from a chance at life.
“I don’t give up that easily,” Keenin said as he would to the death god.
Hero’s never did.
Chapter 32: Responsibility and Friendship